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Infinite Canons: A Few Axioms and Questions, and in Addition, a Proposed Definition

Todd M. Compton – June 13, 2016

© 2016 Todd Compton.


Recent years have seen the appearance of a number of books affirming the existence of definite, authoritative “canons” of music, film, art and literature. For example, in literature, there is Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages (1994). In music we have David Dubal’s The Essential Canon of Classical Music (2003). Screenwriter/critic Paul Schrader, in an influential article, sought to “define and defend the film canon.” The German literary critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki edited a multi-volume anthology of German literature entitled The Canon: German Literature (Der Kanon. Die deutsche Literatur) (2002-2006). To assess this use of the “canon” concept, a short history of canon will be helpful.

The word “canon” is from the Greek kanṓn: to quote the standard ancient Greek dictionary, a “straight rod, bar, esp. to keep a thing straight”; and then, metaphorically, “rule, standard”; and then “in Art, model, standard.” The sculptor Polykleitos created a sculpture of the human body called “The Canon” because its dimensions were to be followed by other sculptors. He also wrote a treatise called The Canon. This metaphor was applied to literary works by the time of rhetorician and historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus (c. 60 BCE-c. 8 CE), who referred to Herodotus’s history as providing “the highest standard [kanōn]of the Ionic dialect, Thucydides of the Attic.” The word “canon,” singular, was at first applied to individual works, or aspects of works.

The Alexandrian canon.

The first well-known Western literary canon was the “Alexandrian canon.” It was produced by two head librarians of the Alexandrian library, Aristophanes of Byzantium (c. 257- c. 180 BCE), who became library director about 195 BCE; and his student and successor, Aristarchus of Samothrace (c. 220 – 145 BCE). It was a canon of authors, not works, and it was divided into genres. It included nine lyric poets, for example, and three iambic poets. The rhetorician Quintilian (c. 35 – c. 100 CE), our primary source for this canon, described it as an ordo or numerus – essentially a list. Unfortunately, there are no extant details telling us how these lists were used. Aristophanes and Aristarchus were both famous scholars, as well as librarians. Their canon could have been a syllabus for beginning students; a list for traveling book-buyers; or an outline of authors deemed worthy of commentaries or textual analysis to be written by employees of the library or students of the librarians. In any event, it shows the process of winnowing literature, isolating a limited number of authors as the “best.” Quintilian does tell us that the librarians included no living authors on their lists, thus excluding Apollonius of Rhodes.

A late manuscript, tenth century CE, purports to contain the actual lists. If it is close to the actual Alexandrian canon, it is an unnerving document, for most of the authors listed are close to forgotten now, and none of their complete works are extant. We know many of these poets only through fragments. We have only one complete poem by the great poetess Sappho, the only woman to show up in this canon. The rest of her many poems are available only as fragments. Of the fourteen comic poets listed, there are only two who have complete plays extant, Aristophanes and Menander, and the latter, the greatest author in New Comedy, has only one nearly complete extant play, The Grouch (Dyskolos), which did not come down to us in multiple manuscripts; it was discovered on a papyrus in Egypt in 1952. In many ancient lists of the best authors, Menander ranked just behind Virgil and Homer.

However, the word kanōn was not used to describe the “Alexandrian canon” during the time of Aristophanes and Aristarchus. Modern scholars applied that term to it.

The Alexandrian canon became very influential. It was not followed slavishly by Greco-Roman critics, as there is considerable variation in individual rosters of authors in different lists; but its organization by genres, for example, continued into Roman criticism.


One method of canonizing authors is by symbolically deifying them. In Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, Apotheosis of Homer, 1827, the blind poet is crowned by an angel. He is surrounded by ancient and modern authors, from Pindar, Orpheus and Virgil to Moliere, Shakespeare and Tasso. Standing to the far right, in a brown robe, is Aristarchus of Samothrace, flanked by Aristotle and Alexander the Great. Courtesy  Wikimedia Commons.


Christian canons.

The first actual use of the word kanōn applied to a group of authoritative, exemplary works occurs in the first centuries of the Christian church. As the early Christians went through the process of judging which books of scripture were “best,” most inspired and most authentic, they explicitly used the word kanōn at least by the time of Origen (ca 184-ca 254 CE). He wrote, “No one should use for proof of doctrine books not included among the canonized scriptures [canonizatas scripturas].”

In the early centuries of the church, the canon varied considerably, with certain books, such as Hebrews or Revelations, considered suspect and left out of many lists. However, the canonization process was finalized by a series of ecclesiastical conferences. In the Council of Laodicia, in 363 CE, the authorized New Testament books were referred to as “the canonical works,” ta kanonika. The third Council at Carthage in North Africa, held in 397 CE, listed the New Testament books as used presently. In a summary of the proceedings of this conference, we read:

It was also determined that besides the Canonical Scriptures [Scripturas canonicas], nothing be read in the Church under the title of divine Scriptures. The Canonical Scriptures [Canonicae Scripturae] are these: [The Old and New Testament books are listed]. Let this be made known also to our brother and fellow-priest, Boniface [of Rome], or to other bishops of those parts, for the purpose of confirming that Canon [isto canone], because we have received from our fathers that those books must be read in the Church. Let it be also allowed that the Passions of Martyrs be read when their festivals are kept.

Despite this, the canon of scripture presently varies among the Christian churches. For example, the Catholic canon of scripture differs from Protestant scripture by the inclusion of the Apocrypha in the Old Testament. So in Christianity, we have canons as opposed to “the canon,” a Catholic canon and a Protestant canon. The Catholic church did not finalize its canon until the Council of Trent (1545-1563 CE), a convocation called as a response to the Protestant Reformation.

We should keep the chronological caveat in mind; a future church council might adjust the list of best works, adding some, removing others. For practical purposes, Luther rejected the Epistle of James, calling it an “epistle of straw” and “unworthy of the apostolic Spirit.”

One of the early criteria for canonicity of the New Testament books was authorship by one of the early apostles. So when the apostolic authorship of books such as Hebrews and the Apocalypse was questioned (by Erasmus and many others), these books’ place in the canon was being questioned, in an absolute sense. However, in a practical sense, these books had been accepted into the Christian canon, and have never been formally decanonized.

Thus the canon of New Testament scripture, after a period of uncertainty, was finalized by meetings and votes of official church leaders. The canonizing was specific: for a limited community, the Christians, certain books were authoritative, the best, exemplary. 

While the process of winnowing the best secular writings had been a feature of the Greco-Roman traditions, and the medieval and Renaissance periods produced many lists of best works, the word canon was not applied to these lists until recent centuries. A parallel metaphor is secular masterpieces viewed as “classics,” works that are the best in their genre, examples for other works to aim at. Classic is from Latin classicus, “of the highest class of Roman citizens, of the first rank.” Thus, a classic is, according to Websters, “Of recognized value: serving as a standard of excellence. b Traditional, enduring.” The great works of the Greeks and Romans were called classics because they were of the first rank, the best, “serving as a standard of excellence,” enduring because of their high quality, a concept directly parallel to the idea of canon as a group of exemplary works tested by time. “Classical music” was not music of a certain genre at first; originally, it simply meant the best music, music of the first rank.

Canons of literature.

The word “canon” came to be applied to catalogues of best literary works in 1768, as the classicist David Ruhnken described the lists of Aristophanes and Aristarchus as a canon. This usage came to be accepted among classicists and beyond. As Gorak writes, “it became common, if sometimes controversial, to extend the application of canon to any list of valuable inherited works. . . To this day, the idea of a canon as a list of standard texts relating to a particular culture or area remains a vital one.”

However, the “Alexandrian canon” was fundamentally different from the canon of New Testament scripture. First, it was not called a canon at the time it was produced, or in antiquity. Second, we do not know how the lists of the “Alexandrian canon” were used, though clearly they had something to do with the Alexandrian library or with scholarship. Third, they were the product of one man, at first, revised by a second. Therefore, fourth, they were not finalized by meetings of leaders. Finally, they were not authoritative for a specific broad community, beyond the library of Alexandria, though they were influential. One could argue that the idea of a canon of literature has no validity, given these differences.

In some ways, however, the usage was attractive. It did borrow the idea of a select group of best, exemplary works and apply it to the masterpieces of secular literature. After Ruhnken, other classicists adopted his reference to the Alexandrian canon, and gradually the concept became widespread. In 1827, Robert Pollok referred to “The lofty seat of canonized bards.” By 1918, the literary critic Van Wyck Brooks could speak of “the accepted canon of American literature.” In America, in 1927, Henry Canby, editor of the Saturday Review of Literature, wrote a column entitled “An American Canon.” Five years later, Carl Van Doren felt there was a need for a “New Canon” of American literature.

In 1936, French critic Valery Larbaud referred to “canonical English authors.” British critic Q. D. Leavis broadened Brooks’s scope in 1943 and referred to “the canon of accepted Literature.”

1948 saw the appearance of Ernst Curtius’s European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, which included an influential chapter on canon formation in the Middle Ages.

Current usage of “canon of literature” (or music or art) is reflected in contemporary dictionaries. Merriam-Webster defines canon, in the literary sense, as “a sanctioned or accepted group or body of related works <the canon of great literature>.” In a draft addition to the Oxford English Dictionary, a canon, in literary criticism, is:

A body of literary works traditionally regarded as the most important, significant, and worthy of study; those works of esp. Western literature considered to be established as being of the highest quality and most enduring value; the classics (now freq. in the canon). Also (usu. with qualifying word): such a body of literature in a particular language, or from a particular culture, period, genre, etc.

Here, the OED introduces a chronological aspect, as works in a canon are “traditionally” regarded as best (and the definition also mentions works of “most enduring” value). This only leads to more questions, such as, how long a process of traditional acceptance is required? OED also states that canonical works “are considered to be established” as best. This is very wishy-washy language. Instead of works “established” as best, we have works “considered” to be established as best. Considered and established by whom?

So a canon, by these definitions, is a list of great works that are “accepted,” in Brooks’s and Leavis’s usage. The OED thinks the works of the canon are “traditionally regarded” as the best. “Regarded” parallels “accepted.” The question now is: who “sanctions,” “accepts” or “regards” the group of works in a canon? Who decides what is best? How big is such a group, and what is its composition: librarians, academics, critics, writers, book reviewers, or just plain readers? Whatever group, large or small, “sanctions” or “regards,” can each member of the group reach absolute unanimity as decisions are made on a limited number of works that are “best”—classical, “canonical”?

In addition, “those works of esp. Western literature” is silly. There have been canons of Asian and African literature also, and holistic canons including all of world literature. A canon of Western literature is certainly allowable, but “the canon of accepted Literature,” in Leavis’s phrase, does not suggest Western literature only.

Critics such as Brooks and Van Doren, and the OED, seem to think that there is a pure, precise canon existing somewhere, like one of the Platonic forms, and assume that everyone simply understands and accepts this canon (whose components are conveniently not specified). The reality is that there is no one literary canon, no one American canon or Western canon, no one musical canon and no one film canon. The field of literature has no organized overall organization that could send its leaders to a convocation to vote on a list of authorized books. One critic cannot prescribe an authoritative canon of literature, by the definition offered by OED and the critics listed above. The reality is, in literature, art and music, we have an infinity of limited canons, sometimes agreeing on certain authors, but often disagreeing.

For example, one critic, or scholar, or writer, can certainly delineate the authors he feels should make up “the canon.” But the next day, another critic, or scholar, or writer can publish a rival list that disallows many authors on the previous list, and adds authors the previous list did not include. This is exactly what happened when John Ruskin assessed Sir John Lubbock’s list of “best hundred books” in 1886. Lubbock originally gave a speech on reading the best literature, and then a number of lists deriving from it ensued. Asked to respond to Lubbock’s list, Ruskin wrote, “Putting my pen lightly through the needless—and blottesquely through the rubbish and poison of Sir John’s list—I leave enough for a life’s liberal reading—and choice for any true worker’s loyal reading.” The following graphic shows dramatically how two distinguished men of letters agreed on a canon of literature:

Proponents of “the canon” may argue that it is the product of all “right-thinking” critics and scholars in a certain field. But however many critics one may choose, and whichever critics one chooses, they will all disagree on exactly which works would make up “the canon.” And if you polled fifty leading critics or authors on the hundred greatest works of literature, and counted their votes as in an election, the resulting list of hundred great works would certainly be of interest, and express the “opinio communis” of that group. But if one were to poll another fifty leading critics or authors, their list would certainly vary from the first list in many points.

There is thus a harmonizing and discordant infinity of canons.

The usage of Brooks and other critics, and the definition of the OED, must then be rejected. There is no such thing as an “accepted” canon of literature, unless one specifies exactly which group “accepts”, and for what group that specific canon is “accepted.” And even in this case, the “acceptance” is only for a limited group. In addition, the chronological aspect of canonical endurance cannot be specified.

A proposed definition of canon.

I propose a more limited, less Platonic, definition of canon. A canon is a list of works considered best and exemplary, propounded by an individual or group, often for a communal purpose. This will allow us to include lists of individuals, such as Aristophanes of Byzantium or Harold Bloom (though such canons will be called the Aristophanes canon or the Bloom canon). The term “personal canon” has started to come into general use. By the OED definition, this is not valid (since the OED implies one collective canon, created over time); by my limited definition, it is.  

This definition will also include groups of canonizers, such as the convocations of early Christianity or the members of an English department creating a reading list for graduates or a poll of critics and/or writers, or polls organized by magazines, websites or book clubs. By my definition, no canon is absolute, though a canon can be accepted as binding for a specific purpose or community.

However, my definition will not allow us to refer to any work as “canonical” in an absolute sense, and there is no such thing as “the canon” of anything, unless we are referring to a specific limited canon. There is no such thing as “the accepted canon of American literature,” “the canon of accepted literature,” “the literary canon,” “the Western canon,” or “The Essential Canon of Classical Music.The term “canon formation” also has no validity, unless we are talking about the formation of one specific canon created for a specific community or purpose. To speak of the formation of “the canon of English literature,” for example, presupposes that there is some pure, precise, timeless list of the favored works in the English tradition—accepted by all authors, critics, readers, librarians and teachers. Instead, we have many canons of English literature, with some shared elements and some contradicting elements.

Having made this short historical survey and offered a definition of canon, I now turn to some observations and questions on what canons are and should be.

Canons are often communal.

Canons are often created by groups of people for specific purposes. We have seen that the canon of New Testament books was finalized by a series of meetings of church leaders. Other examples of communal canons are the syllabus, a list of books to be read in a class, or reading lists for students in literature programs, which the students will be asked to know to prepare for written tests.

A canon is often a list with a social purpose. For that limited purpose and social situation, the canon is fixed. For a certain literature survey class, five specific books will be on the syllabus.

But none of these canons are absolute; they are limited by their specific social purpose. For a literature survey class of modern American fiction, two teachers may assign five entirely different books. And different religious groups will have different canons.

A canon is both inclusive and exclusive.

There is an unavoidable survival-of-the-fittest aspect to the process of reading, as no one can read everything, and so we have a natural desire to read the best works, given the limited time allotted to each human being in a lifetime. So reliable guidance on what the best books are is a valuable contribution. Recommending any book, or a group of books, by definition leaves millions of books off the list. Jonathan Swift once described this competitive aspect of literature as the Battle of the Books— “An ACCOUNT of a BATTEL between the Antient and Modern BOOKS in St. James’s Library.”


Illustration from Jonathan’s Swift’s Battle of the Books.


This same survival-of-the-fittest aspect of literature is present in the process of formulating canons, deciding what is best in a genre; for every work included in a canon, there are hundreds, thousands, millions, an infinity of works not included. Many of these may be superb works; they are simply not the best. A canon is by definition a limitation.

In creating a small canon, say of ten books, if we love a hundred books, we are forced to exclude ninety books. Thus, creating a canon can be a painful process. On the other hand, the process of delineating a canon can be a joyful experience, as one seeks to internalize and celebrate the highest reaches of the human spirit. So engaging in the canonical process is always ambiguous—both destructive and creative, painful and joyful.

Some have criticized canons as exclusionary. They are by definition both inclusionary and exclusionary. If you pick the best, that which is not the absolute best is by definition not included. But experiencing the best of the best is an entirely worthwhile goal.

We should also not forget the value of many works that may be seen as of secondary stature—the less important books of great writers, or the inspirations of writers who may be of lesser stature than the titans, but who are still entirely worthwhile. For example, I would not place Jerome K. Jerome’s comic masterpiece Three Men in a Boat on my list of twenty greatest literary accomplishments in the history of the world. In one sense, it is second-rate. Nevertheless, I have read and reread it repeatedly in my life. By the standard of pleasurable rereading, it is higher on my personal canon than is many a weighty tome.

How big is a canon?

A canon by definition limits to a certain number of the best works. So we may ask: How big is a canon? 1000 works? 100 works? 50 works? 25 works? 20 works? 10 works? 5 works?

There is no objective answer to this question. The answer in part depends on how the canon-receiver, or the canonical community, needs to use the canon. Thus:

The size of a canon depends to some extent on the purpose of the canon.

If you want to find a good list of books to read privately, you may want to start with ten or fifty or a hundred books, and continue adding to that number throughout your lifetime.

A canon of a thousand books, arranged alphabetically, thematically or chronologically, as in the Guardian’s article with the absurd title, “1000 Novels Everyone Must Read,” might not serve such a reader well, as he or she may want to read the “best” five, ten or twenty books first, and a canon of a thousand gives no help for this (unless it is ranked).

And five and ten are not the lowest possible canonical numbers: T. S. Eliot created a canon of two “modern” writers: “Dante and Shakespeare divide the modern world between them, there is no third.” In fact, Keats seemed to narrow that down to Shakespeare alone: “I never quite despair and I read Shakspeare—indeed I shall I think never read any other Book much [. . .] I am very near Agreeing with Hazlit that Shakspeare is enough for us.”

If you are creating a canon to educate undergraduates on the high points of the western cultural tradition, in a class lasting four months, this has become, as it were, a social canon, part of the relationship between teacher and students. Because of the four month limitation, it might be a very selective canon—possibly four to eight full books, in addition to a selection of short works.

If you are a librarian opening up a new, small branch library, and selecting a core number of select books, a list of a thousand books might be useful. A thousand books is still a limited canon, compared to the millions of books published throughout history (and the huge quantity published every year).

One method of creating a canon is to collect short works in a book. The Bible is such an anthology—its name comes from Biblia, “Books”—and the history of the anthology reaches back to Greco-Roman times. The word comes from the Greek word anthologia, “collection of flowers,” and one of the earliest known anthologies, The Garland (Stephanos) by Meleagros of Gadara (1st century BCE), characterized each poet as a flower. This led to the well-known poetry anthology, The Greek Anthology. If you are creating an anthology—a book-size canon of the best short works—this selection will be limited by the number of pages that is practical for the formation of the book as physical object, and the limitations given by your editor. The contents can contain only comparatively short works, short books created from scrolls, short novels, short stories, essays, poems, though a novel is sometimes included in a long anthology of fiction.

Is a canon composed of works or creators? Do we pick Hamlet or Shakespeare?

There is no objective answer to this question. Some authors have one overwhelming masterpiece, like Dante and the Divine Comedy, or Proust and In Search of Lost Time. However, if we decide to create a canon of works, can one play, say, Hamlet, stand beside the towering expanses of the Divine Comedy? Probably not. However, in a canon of creators, Shakespeare as represented by his entire corpus—including Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth, Othello, Romeo and Juliet, Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Tempest, As You Like It,Twelfth Night, the historical plays, the sonnets—can arguably stand beside Dante.

Many canons, starting with Aristophanes of Byzantium, include only the creator. Andrew Sarris, in his influential book The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929–1968 (1968), created a personal canon of American directors.

If we create a canon of creators, not works, we will need to create an additional canon for each of those creators. In other words, what is the best of Shakespeare? Of Goethe? What five to twenty works of each of these would we choose?

Therefore, there are advantages to creating a canon of works, as such canons will include the creator. In addition, sometimes an author’s vast corpus can be intimidating, and much of it is far inferior to his or her best—if we select the work, we have by definition also created a useful subcanon of an author.

Canons can be limited by geography or chronology or some other special feature.

“Limited” canons are entirely valid, especially for readers interested in a particular focus. Canons of American novels, French short stories, or Nigerian music can be useful. The “Western” element in Bloom’s title, The Western Canon, represents a valid limitation, entirely open to the creators of any canon.

However, if you are looking for the best of the best, then “limited” canons give only a percentage of the “holistic” canon. They are incomplete.

Obviously, limited canons can be the product of ethnocentrism and narrowness. And limited canons, per se, can cut us off from some of the greatest works in literature. Leslie Schenk, in a review of Bloom’s The Western Canon, admires the book, but makes the point that a well-educated Japanese person is conversant in Japanese classics, Chinese classics and Western classics. In the west, we are usually conversant only with Western classics, at best. In cinema, the idea of a Western canon would be laughable—ignoring the films of Akira Kurosawa, ‎Yasujirō Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi, Satyagit Ray, Abbas Kiarostami, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Edward Yang and Zhang Yimou would separate us from some of the great cinematic experiences.

Poet, translator and critic Kenneth Rexroth, after an overview of translated Chinese fiction, asked,

What kind of novels are they? . . . they are great novels, very great novels. In fact I would say that The Dream of the Red Chamber and the Japanese Tale of Genji are the two greatest works of prose fiction in all the history of literature, and that all the others belong on anybody’s list of 100 Best Books. That they are not on the Hutchins-Adler list is an excellent indicator of the Western, Thomism-cum-Whiggery parochialism of Mr. Hutchins and Mr. Adler. I am not trying to be odd or annoying. I am not saying something like “Sturge Moore is the greatest poet of the twentieth century.” I really do believe that these are the two best novels in the world. Furthermore, there are not many people who are familiar with them who do not agree with me.

Thus, if we confine ourselves to Western literature, we may be missing the two greatest novels in the history of mankind.

If a holistic view of canon is important to you, you will include Japanese, Chinese, Indian, French, English, American, South American, African, Tibetan, works in your personal canon, and works from all time periods. The holistic canon may require some ambition and energy both on the part of canon provider and canon user. On the other hand, some of the marvels of literature, such as The Bible, Rumi, The Bhagavad-Gita, The Arabian Nights and The Dream of the Red Chamber, will be technically excluded by limited Western canons.

However, as the above short list shows, translations of non-Western works are an interesting problem. Is a translation of a non-Western work a re-creation, thus a Western work? Few would disagree with the proposition that the King James Bible is a foundational work in English literature for the beauty of its prose, its poetry, and compelling storytelling, and it is absurd to consider a history or canon of English literature without it. The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, as “translated” by Edward Fitzgerald, has been considered a work of English poetry; though it took great liberties with the Persian text, it certainly often reflects Omar Khayyam’s poem. Do we disallow it from our canons of English literature? Rexroth argues that Arthur Waley’s translations from the Chinese are themselves profound works of art.

By this argument, non-Western works can enter Western canons at the time of an good translation. If we use influence and impact as a criterion for inclusion in a canon, The Arabian Nights is certainly part of the Western tradition. Its impact on writers as diverse as Tolstoy, Proust, Borges and Dickens shows that it is technically impossible to entirely separate “Western” and “non-Western” canons.

As is well known, American poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson was profoundly influenced by Hindu religio-philosophical works. On October 1, 1848, he wrote in his diary, “I owed . . . a magnificent day to the Bhagavat Geeta.— It was the first of books; it was as if an empire spake to us, nothing small or unworthy, but large, serene, consistent, the voice of an old intelligence which in another age and climate had pondered and thus disposed of the same questions that exercise us. Let us . . . cherish the venerable oracle.” His famous poem “Brahma” is of course based on Hindu concepts, and some lines of this poem are almost direct quotes from the Bhagavat-Gita.

Tolstoy was profoundly influenced by Buddhist texts, the Tao Te Ching and the Hindu Vedas. For example in a list of “good, supreme art,” he mentioned the Iliad, the Odyssey, the stories of Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph, the Hebrew prophets, the psalms, from the Old Testament, the Gospel parables, the story of Sakya Muni (Buddha), and the hymns of the Vedas. Except for the Iliad and Odyssey, all of this is non-Western.

No two canons are the same.

This is a verifiable, unalterable, inescapable fact. André Maurois wrote, “In literature as in love, we are astonished at what is chosen by others.” And in the same vein, two anonymous maxims: “De gustibus non est disputandum.” (“You can’t argue about taste”) and “‘There’s no accounting for tastes,’ said the old lady as she kissed the cow.”

All canons will conflict with each other (with the exception of the “dittohead” phenomenon, in which one person simply accepts another’s canon unthinkingly and uncritically).

Let’s take Joyce, for example. He seems a star comfortably ensconced in the firmament of many western canons. Bloom devotes a chapter to him in The Western Canon, and believes he is a worthy successor/antagonist to his central “canonical” author, Shakespeare. In the 1998 Modern Library editors poll of twentieth-century novels in English, Joyce’s Ulysses is ranked at number one. He has been acclaimed by many fellow writers, and is accepted as one of the dominant novelists of the twentieth century by the great majority of modern critics.

Yet Virginia Woolf, whose To the Lighthouse comes in at 15 in the Modern Library poll, and whose Orlando is on Bloom’s short list of 25 or so greatest works in “the western canon,” wrote, “I finished Ulysses, & think it a misfire. Genius it has I think; but of the inferior water. The book is diffuse. It is brackish. It is pretentious. It is underbred, not only in the obvious sense, but in the literary sense.” She regarded the book as “a memorable catastrophe—immense in daring, terrific in disaster.”

Jorge Luis Borges, also on Bloom’s short list, spoke of “those two vast and—why not say it?—unreadable novels, Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake.” Rereadability is often cited as a canonical quality in literature; but if you can’t read a book once, that certainly removes it from consideration as rereadable. Borges referred to Ulysses as a “failure” because its characters never really come alive—“you don’t know them,” as you know the characters in books by Dickens and Stevenson.

Nobel Prize winner Isaac Bashevis Singer, a writer with four books in Bloom’s appendices, said, “To me, Joyce’s Ulysses is almost boring. I don’t enjoy this kind of abstruse writing where style is dominant and the story only serves as a container of the style, a frame.”

One could find as many or more quotes from distinguished writers who admired Ulysses. One could also analyze why Woolf, Borges, and Singer did not warm up to it—Singer rejected it for its lack of “story.” Borges was not sympathetic to the genre of the novel (though he included some novels and novelists, such as Twain, Dickens and Conrad, in his personal canon), and criticized “padding” in long works of fiction.

But my point is simply that, if Woolf, Borges, and Singer deserve respect as judges of quality in literature, we have to admit that there is no consensus that Ulysses is the best novel in English in the twentieth century, or even that it is a good book.

Another example is Shakespeare. For Bloom, Shakespeare is the center of “the Western canon.” Certainly, this is plausible. In a recent international newspaper poll, readers were asked to choose the greatest author not in their country. Shakespeare easily won the poll, even with Britain unable to vote for him. Yet two great writers, Tolstoy and George Bernard Shaw, emphatically excluded Shakespeare from their personal canons. Tolstoy despised Shakespeare, whom he regarded as merely an “ordinary” writer, with an absurdly inflated reputation. The novelist wrote an article on Shakespeare’s plays, “On Shakespeare and the Drama,” “to save people the necessity of pretending that they like them.” He expressed distaste for all the famous plays: Julius Caesar, Romeo and Juliet, Othello, King Lear, and Hamlet. “What a crude, immoral, vulgar and senseless work Hamlet is,” he wrote in 1896. “The whole thing is based on pagan vengeance; the only aim is to gather together as many effects as possible; there is no rhyme or reason about it. The author was so concerned with the effects that he didn’t even bother to give the main person any character.” As he looked at this play’s reputation, he wrote, “I never understood so clearly the utter helplessness of the crowd in making judgments, and how they can deceive themselves.” Presumably, Tolstoy probably meant the “crowd” of intellectuals rather than the mass of common people. He is directly attacking the critical opinio communis.

In the essay on Shakespeare, he wrote,

After reading, one after the other, the plays considered to be his most beautiful—King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet and Macbeth—not only did I derive no pleasure from them, but I felt an overpowering repugnance, a boundless tedium, and I wondered whether it was I who was mad, to find empty and offensive these works that are held by all cultivated people to be the summit of perfection.

George Bernard Shaw also rejected Shakespeare as even a good dramatist, let alone a great one. He wrote,

With the single exception of Homer, there is no eminent writer, not even Sir Walter Scott, whom I can despise so entirely as I despise Shakespeare when I measure my mind against his. The intensity of my impatience with him occasionally reaches such a pitch, that it would positively be a relief to me to dig him up and throw stones at him, knowing as I do how incapable he and his worshippers are of understanding any less obvious form of indignity.

Shaw does mention Shakespeare’s gift for storytelling, his skill with language and characterization. Nevertheless, he wrote,

There are moments when one asks despairingly why our stage should ever have been cursed with this “immortal” pilferer of other men’s stories and ideas, with his monstrous rhetorical fustian, his unbearable platitudes, his pretentious reduction of the subtlest problems of life to commonplaces against which a Polytechnic debating club would revolt, his incredible unsuggestiveness, his sententious combination of ready reflection with complete intellectual sterility.

There are also positive choices in various canons that stray far from the opinio communis. One evening, Gabriel García Márquez, Bill Clinton, Carlos Fuentes and William Styron had dinner together, and each named his favorite book. Styron chose Huckleberry Finn; Clinton the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, and Carlos Fuentes Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom. All of these would have broad support among academics and literary critics. However, Márquez named, not a book by Joyce, or Hemingway, or Faulkner, but Dumas’s TheCount of Monte Cristo. Dumas is nowhere mentioned even in the appendix of Bloom’s Western Canon; yet one of the great writers of our century put Monte Cristo at the very top of his personal canon of books.

At other times Márquez selected War and Peace and Moby Dick as the best novel in world history. Dracula was another favorite of his. Count Dracula, with Edmond Dantes (from Monte Cristo) and Gargantua, were his three favorite fictional characters.

A Canon of Character – Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s three favorite fictional characters: Dracula, Edmond Dantes from Count of Monte Cristo, and Gargantua.


In 1891, Tolstoy prepared a list of books and stories that had influenced him significantly and these were ranked by influence that was “great,” “very great” and “enormous.” In the “enormous” category, along with the story of Joseph from the Old Testament and the Sermon on the Mount, Rousseau’s Confessions, Dickens’s David Copperfield, and Hugo’s Les Misérables, is Gogol’s short story, “Viy.” This choice is extremely idiosyncratic, as “Viy” is a wild tale of witchcraft, not, seemingly, one of the great evocations of the human spirit. (Gogol’s much more famous and influential “The Overcoat” is only in the “great” influence category, for Tolstoy.)

Jorge Luis Borges often described Dante’s Divine Comedy as the greatest work of literature ever written; however, his favorite single book in his home library was a book of poetry—not Shakespeare, Keats, T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens or Yeats, but the collected poems of Rudyard Kipling. According to his friend Willis Barnstone, Borges virtually had the book memorized. Few academic critics would rank Kipling’s poetry as great, both for political and aesthetic reasons; however, for Borges it was at the very center of his personal canon.

Canons change chronologically, from generation to generation, century to century.

Canons will vary over time. New works are constantly appearing, and some of these will deserve to be included in personal and collective canons. In addition, fashions in taste change. The canon of a typical nineteenth-century academic in Victorian England will be quite different from the canon of a twenty-first-century academic—aside from the obvious lack of twentieth century writers on the earlier list. Basic aesthetic and world views have changed. (This is one reason that the OED definition of canon lacks validity; inclusion on “the western canon” by “tradition,” over time, will never occur in a unified way.)

To take one example, the short story. In the nineteenth century, the great majority of short stories developed character through a series of events, as found in the work of Scott, Poe, Kipling and Stevenson. Canons of short story—lists as well as anthologies—were composed of such stories with well-defined beginning, middle and end. In addition, these lists included many fantasy and ghost stories, such as Gogol’s “The Overcoat” or Scott’s “Wandering Willie’s Tale.”

In our century, taste has inclined toward the short story without much event, capturing a mood, with an emphasis on style, and strict realism, as found in the work of Joyce, Hemingway and Carver.

It is easy to posit that our taste has matured. But what if the taste of the next century has substantially changed and “matured” beyond ours?

Broad canons tallied from votes change over time. For example, the early film polls in the 1950s selected films such as Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin or De Sica’sThe Bicycle Thief as the greatest film in history. The influential Sight & Sound polls, held every decade, began in 1952 with The Bicycle Thief at number one. After the fifties, most film polls, including the Sight & Sounds polls, selected Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane as number one. However, the latest Sight & Sound poll, in 2012, saw Hitchcock’s Vertigo dethrone Kane.Battleship Potemkin is now at number eleven, and The Bicycle Thief has dropped to thirty-three. In 2002 the National Society of Film Critics published a book listing and praising “100 Essential Films,” but Bicycle Thief was not included.

Charlie Chaplin’s standing in the Sight & Sound polls has undergone a remarkable decline. In the first Sight & Sound poll, two Chaplin movies, City Lights and The Gold Rush, tied for second place. In the 2012 poll, City Lights barely squeaks into the top fifty, in a tie with two other movies, and The Gold Rush has dropped off the canonical cliff, at number 154.

Directors Poll, Brussels, 1952

Critics Poll, Sight & Sound, 1952

Critics Poll, Sight & Sound, 2012

The Battleship Potemkin (Bronenosets Potyomkin)

The Bicycle Thief (Ladri di biciclette)


The Gold Rush

City Lights

Citizen Kane

The Bicycle Thief (Ladri di biciclette)

The Gold Rush

Tokyo Story (Tokyo monogatari)

City Lights

The Battleship Potemkin (Bronenosets Potyomkin)

The Rules of the Game (La Règle du Jeu)

Grand Illusion (La Grande Illusion)


Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans

Le Million (The Million)

Louisiana Story

2001: A Space Odyssey

Brief Encounter


The Searchers


Le Jour Se Lève (Daybreak)

Man with a Movie Camera (Chelovek s Kinoapparatom)


The Passion of Joan of Arc (La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc)

The Passion of Joan of Arc (La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc)

Hallelujah! (tie)

Brief Encounter (tie)

8-1/2 (Otto e Mezzo)

Man of Aran (tie)

Le Million (The Million)  (tie)


The Threepenny Opera (Die Dreigroschenoper) (tie)

The Rules of the Game (La Règle du Jeu)  (tie)


The Impermanence of Critical Taste: Remarkably, the two 1952 polls agree on the first four movies (in slightly different order). Three of these are silent movies. The 2012 poll has three silent movies, but not the silent movies in the top four of the 1952 polls. Many of the films in the 1952 polls, such as René Clair’s Le Million, are now comparatively forgotten.


Sir Walter Scott offers a good example of a similar decline in the literary arena. He is now viewed as an author of adventure stories for boys, of historical importance perhaps, but not to be compared with Dickens, Thackeray and George Eliot.  In a 2007 poll of writers, not a single book by Scott appears in the top 286. However, we have seen that when art critic John Ruskin “edited” Lubbock’s canon, he crossed out Thackeray and Eliot and kept Scott, writing after his name, “Every word.” A remarkable tribute from a critic whom one would expect would be judging by high aesthetic standards.

The great poet and novelist Goethe was another critic who ranked Scott among the great writers. In an informal conversation, he said:

“We read far too many poor things, thus losing time, and gaining nothing. We should only read what we admire, as I did in my youth, and as I now experience with Sir Walter Scott. I have just begun ‘Rob Roy,’ and will read his best novels in succession. All is great—material, import, characters, execution; and then what infinite diligence in the preparatory studies! what truth of detail in the execution!”

And again, “‘Walter Scott,’ said he, ‘is a great genius; he has not his equal; and we need not wonder at the extraordinary effect he produces on the whole reading world. He gives me much to think of; and I discover in him a wholly new art, with laws of its own.’”

In an influential article, Alastair Fowler has noted how literary genres change over time. As new genres become dominant, they will transform canons as a result.

Some works are misunderstood or ignored at first, and are rediscovered by later generations. Other works invert this; they are valued by contemporary audiences and critics, then subsequent generations lose interest in them. But for an individual work, or an author, that process could invert again.

Haphazard factors of preservation over time often help define a canon.

The canon of Sophocles is limited to seven complete plays, though he wrote 123 of them. Were the seven survivors preserved because they were his best, most popular plays, and so more copies of them were made than of his lesser plays? Sometimes it seems clear that the works that had the most impact were copied (by hand) the most, were the most read, and survived in multiple manuscripts, thus ensuring their survival, and inclusion in canons.

However, at other times there are unexplainable vagaries in the preservation of manuscripts. It is possible that the seven extant plays of Sophocles were preserved because at some point only one collection of scrolls escaped destruction.

Most would accept that Sappho is one of the great Greek literary artists; yet we have only a single short complete poem written by her. All of her books of poetry, and all of her complete poems (with that one exception), have been lost.

Many great works of Greco-Roman literature were preserved only as rhetorical teaching tools.

Books in dry climates have survived, while books in damp climates have not.

Tischendorf discovered one of the oldest copies of the New Testament in a basket of fuel at a monastery near Mount Sinai.

So there is an element of chance as well as of quality in the preservation of the best works.

Every medium of art has its idiosyncrasies. The movie, before the advent of the VCR and DVD, was dependent on public showings, and the only way to see older films was on TV or in revival theaters. Needless to say, the choice on TV, before cable and VCR, was meager (especially for foreign films), and many communities did not have revival theaters. Film stock was very flammable, and there are a number of lost early movies. Now, however, many classic films are widely available on DVD, on the internet, and on cable television. More people can enjoy great movies, and can judge which movies are best.

Canons change chronologically for individuals.

In the case of an individual, a personal canon may change throughout his or her lifetime. The personal canon of Leo Tolstoy when he wrote War and Peace in 1869 is much different than his personal canon when he wrote What Is Art?  in 1897.

Goethe was deeply influenced by the classical Greek authors, but different authors influenced him at different times.

George Bernard Shaw, whom W. H. Auden called “probably the greatest music critic who ever lived,” often lambasted Brahms, and his scathing attacks on him are frequently quoted (such as his claim that Brahms’s German Requiem could be “patiently borne only by the corpse.”). However, he later stated that his attacks on Brahms had been misguided, admitted that he had not understood Brahms’s new, unfamiliar, musical idiom, and wrote, “I apologize.”

Film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum has given top tens of his favorite movies at different times in his career and the listings are all different (only a few movies are constant). As one novelist told me, in giving me his list of favorite books, “this will change tomorrow.”

Canons differ geographically.

If a poll is based in France, say, there will be a natural tendency for it to have a French bias. One is simply so familiar with and attached to one’s own national literature that it is entirely natural to show such a bias.

For example, the National Endowment of the Arts in Britain sponsored a survey of readers in England, called the Big Read. In the top ten, nine of the books were written by Britons. In a similar survey in Germany, titled Das große Lesen, the top twenty-six included a number of books by Germans, including Perfume by Patrick Süskind at number 4, Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks at number 6, and Goethe’s Faust at 15. In the British Big Read, Perfume is at 71, and Buddenbrooks and Faust are not found at all. There were also similarities between the lists—such as The Lord of the Rings at number one in both surveys—but the German survey had a significant German component that was absent from the English list.

A poll of a hundred French writers produced a poll dominated by Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (33 votes, almost three times that of the second place entry, Ulysses). Also in the top ten of this poll were de La Fayette’s The Princess of Cleves (tied for third place), Baudelaire’s Flowers of Evil (tied for fifth place), and Flaubert’s A Sentimental Education (at ten). With the exception of In Search of Lost Time, none of these books appear anywhere in an American-based poll of 125 writers conducted by J. Peder Zane. Another poll of French writers had Shakespeare and the Bible in the first two places, but the rest of the top ten were books by French writers—Proust, Montaigne, Rabelais, Baudelaire, Pascal, Molière, Rousseau, and Stendhal. (The American poll included only two French writers in its top ten, Flaubert and Proust.) None of these polls, American or French, included Don Quixote in their top ten, despite the fact that it is sometimes regarded as the greatest novel ever written. However, a poll of Spanish writers conducted by El Pais put it at number 1, just before In Search of Lost Time. Other notable books in Spanish in this poll’s top twenty are Borges, Ficciones (at 10), Poeta en New York by Federico García Lorca (at 11), and Pedro Páramo by Juan Rulfo (at 16).

One could argue that every canon is geographically flawed; or one could celebrate the unique “geographical” perspectives of every canon. For example, the El Pais poll might lead you to read Rulfo’s marvelous Pedro Páramo, not surprisingly one of Gabriel García Márquez’s favorite books. He bought dozens of copies to give to his friends, and read it so frequently that he once said he could recite the whole book, forwards and backwards. He felt that the few hundreds of pages that Rulfo had published would be as enduring as the pages written by Sophocles.


Three books in the top ten greatest books of all time in a French poll. None of these made even a low  appearance in a similar America-based poll.


We can try to surmount the contradictions of individual canons by creating polls, collective canons.

In other words a group of people may simply vote on a canon. The group may be small—an academic committee perhaps, or an editorial board of a newspaper or publishing company—or large, a poll of hundreds or even thousands of readers or listeners.

Polled canons—voting on best works—may serve a sort of practical purpose. Such polls provide a opinio communis, a snapshot of taste frozen in time and space, that can be valuable. However, they are not binding at all, because each collective canon differs from all other canons, individual or collective.

A large collective canon, with many voters, can be viewed as more democratic than a small collective canon, or an individual canon. In some ways it is more useful than a personal canon, and in other ways less useful.

If one accepts the validity of polls—and I find them fascinating, though not authoritative in any way—there is still no absolute standard for judging which polls are the best. A poll with a thousand voters is as valid as a poll of ten voters. A poll of French literature is as valid as a poll of World literature.

The methodology of polls can obviously be flawed, however. I like polls that are transparent and show the voters’ ballots, and thus supply a number of personal canons as well as the collective poll. One can see if the voters were critics, academics, librarians, writers, or simply readers. The lack of transparency in some polls seems suspicious, and supplying the ballots removes that suspicion. For example, at the end of every year the rock music magazine Rolling Stone proposes the year’s ten best albums. However, for two years running their highest albums have been very quirky. One wonders if the editor of the magazine merely selected the top ten, because you can’t imagine those entries coming from even a small poll of critics. Without the ballots, you cannot tell.

I like polls that include a wide variety of voters, from different countries. Polls in which a small group of critics select, as participants in their poll, a limited group of critics whose taste is very similar to their own, have much more limited interest, for me.

I also like polls that show the points awarded to each entry. The Norwegian Book Club poll treated this information like a state secret on which the fate of the free world depended. They generously identified their number one novel—Don Quixote—but gave us no rankings for the other 99 books. If you think a poll is worth doing, then release the details about the poll, the ballots, and the number of votes for each book.

The methodology of the Sight & Sound film polls has been exemplary. The editors make a serious effort to recruit voters from around the world (though English speakers dominate). All the ballots are printed (in 2012, online). Granted the limitations of polls as guides to canon, this is how a poll should be run.

An individual canon can be valuable for its idiosyncrasy.

An individual’s list of twenty favorite works may include many well-known books, but it usually includes some that rarely appear on other individuals’ lists. Sometimes these out-of-the-way masterpieces can offer us our most valuable reading experiences.

For example, Frank O’Connor, the great Irish short story writer, chose as the supreme short story masterpiece, the finest short story in the world, “Old Portraits,” by Ivan Turgenev. As a long-time reader of O’Connor, I sought it out, read it, and was grateful that he had pointed me to it. Yet in a survey of about fifty leading short story anthologies I happened to make, this short story was never included.

Borges was another idiosyncratic critic. In his personal canon are—not Hemingway, Joyce and Proust—but G. K. Chesterton, Kipling, Robert Louis Stevenson, Conrad and the early science fiction of H. G. Wells (among others). There is no question of Borges being “right” or “wrong” in his personal canon; but if you enjoy his writing, you might want to investigate the authors that influenced him most. He said that he had tried to read every word ever written by Chesterton, best known for his Father Brown mystery stories and his defenses of Catholicism. While some critics, such as Edmund Wilson, have rejected the mystery genre, Borges edited anthologies of mystery stories, and a series of mystery books (the Seventh Circle, the title taken from Dante). He also edited an anthology of fantasy stories, and a series of fantasy books (the Library of Babel). In doing this, he was swimming against the current of most modern literary, academic taste.

A collective canon can be valuable for its lack of idiosyncrasy, or limited by it.

A collective canon expresses the opinio communis, a shared opinion, of a group of people. If the leaders of a church gather, and vote on which books will be considered part of a canon, that list will be more acceptable to a broad base of membership, in theory, than a list created by just one person.

If an English department is responsible for a survey class of English literature, it may decide which six books will be included as the texts in the survey. One could argue that the student will be better served to be exposed to works chosen collectively, than to the idiosyncrasies of an individual canon.

Or one could argue that if a student’s taste is close to the personal canon of a particular teacher, that student is served well, in a different way, by finding that teacher and exploring the off-the-beaten-path classics he or she selects.

On the other hand, one could argue that sometimes it is valuable to read works entirely outside our idiosyncratic bent.

Borges, in teaching, avoided the straitjacket of imposing his own personal favorites on students. He thought the idea of students reading assigned books they did not like went against all the logic and real experience of reading literature, which is a joyful experience of personal choice. Find the authors who speak to you, he said, and enjoy them thoroughly. Of course, he also enthusiastically praised his favorite writers in his classes. In the same vein, Samuel Johnson said, “A man ought to read just as inclination leads him, for what he reads as a task will do him little good.”

For practical reasons, we sometimes must work within the framework of some “social” canons, but in an absolute sense we, as individuals, are bound by no canons.

The use that is made of a canon is entirely dependent on collective relationship. For example, a teacher might select the five best American novels of the nineteenth century, in his or her judgment, for a class. The students will be influenced by that short list of novels. A book reviewer for a major newspaper or magazine, writing a column on a favorite book, might influence many thousands of readers. He or she may reprint it later in a book, reaching thousands more readers. Friends who read a great deal might be influential in their evaluations and recommendations of books, in their limited circles, and their friends will come to know these favorite books.

In a collective social situation, we may be required to work within the framework of someone’s canon temporarily for practical purposes—we may feel obligated to read the five novels in the American novel class, even if we start one and don’t care for it at all. But of course, we cannot be required to accept the teacher’s “canon” as correct, or applicable to ourselves in an absolute sense. (A student may be a Henry James person, not a Mark Twain person. The teacher may want to include both in a class so the student will be introduced to both.)

If a librarian accepts 100 books in a certain genre, for practical purposes, we will be more exposed to those books than any of the excluded books, if we go to that library frequently. (Of course, we can go to other libraries, or buy books, if necessary.)

Even less are we required to accept a canon—collective or personal—if we are not part of the collective relationship of the canon. A Buddhist does not need to read and live by the New Testament.

However, we may be enriched by all canons—whether produced by an individual, a committee, or a thousand voters in a poll. They will be worthwhile as possible guides in our own reading.

The most useful canons may be personal canons by critics or authors whose taste is similar to our own.

The most useful canon may be a personal canon from a friend or reviewer or teacher if we find a friend or reviewer or teacher who has taste similar to our own, but who has explored more widely in literature than we have. These will be much more useful to us than individual canons by critics whose taste differs fundamentally from our individual tastes. And it will be much more useful to us than polls of voters, as interesting as those sometimes are.

Sometimes a canon by an individual will be presented as a collective consensus.

As was noted earlier, in 1886, Percy Lubbock produced an influential list of the hundred best books. When he reprinted the list in The Pleasures of Life in 1890, he wrote that in producing this list,

I had not presumed to form a list of my own, nor did I profess to give my own favourites. My attempt was to give those most generally recommended by previous writers on the subject. . . . I may observe that I drew up the list, not as that of the hundred best books, but, which is very different, of those which have been most frequently recommended as best worth reading.

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